Mandated Testing Can Be a Mendacious Indicator, by Cherylyn Harley LeBon

lebon_smStandardized tests are a major factor in charting the career paths of America’s children. College and university admissions officers rely on standardized test scores to help them determine if a student’s goals are feasible and if they are a good fit on their campuses.

There are several standardized admissions tests available to college-bound high schoolers, but states are beginning to play favorites. That’s not a bright idea.

For example, lawmakers in North Carolina recently voted to require all 11th graders to take the ACT — whether they want to continue their education past their high school graduation or not.

But, despite this de facto government endorsement, the ACT may not be the wisest choice for even those planning for college. At the same time North Carolina was making the ACT a requirement, the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) was publishing a new study — “Improving College Performance and Retention the Easy Way: Unpacking the ACT Exam” — that cast doubt on the ACT’s proficiency. It concludes that two out of the four subjects — science and reading — “provide little or no additional predictive power” on student achievement.

This is problematic because the ACT lumps the results of all four subject tests into a single “composite” score, resulting in what can be considered an incomplete portrait of a student’s readiness for college and their mastery of certain academic skills.

On the ACT’s own web site, for instance, sample science questions appear to require more reading comprehension than scientific acumen. Only one of seven questions in a particular passage about Jupiter’s moon Europa requires knowledge not provided. So much for determining science skills.

As the mother of a young daughter who is interested in science and a career in medicine, I am very concerned about the ACT’s ability to gauge a student’s knowledge of science or their likelihood of succeeding at a particular college.

The problem with the ACT’s shortcomings, as the study’s author’s note, is that most college admissions offices focus on the composite score. Looking at the overall score would not necessarily give an indication that the sciences are the proper place for an applicant.

NBER maintains that the ACT may not properly match students with schools that meet their needs or capabilities. Students could find themselves in institutions too difficult for them — leading to academic probation, dropping out and other problems. Alternatively, they may not be sufficiently challenged. In any case, not matching students with the right school can have serious academic and financial consequences.

In the case of the ACT, it appears that the test is more literacy than knowledge. This puts admissions at a disadvantage.

It is even more unfortunate for North Carolina parents and students, where students must take the ACT. Part of the rationale for this mandate is that it would help identify weak spots in a student’s academic knowledge and allow time for remedial education. But, according to NBER, it’s not clear that the ACT can be an effective barometer of a student’s science or reading aptitude. North Carolina legislators didn’t have the benefit of the NBER study during their debate, yet now the ACT effectively has the endorsement of the state government as the test schools and students should rely upon.

Parents, teachers, students and legislators all have a stake in quality education. But there is an important cautionary tale for other state education officials to be found in North Carolina’s recent events. When a legislature strays beyond enacting broad education policy and begins to micromanage, as North Carolina did, by mandating specific tests, it may not receive what they expect.

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Cherylyn Harley LeBon is member of the National Advisory Board of Project 21. She is a mother, lawyer and former senior counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @HarleyLeBon.

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